Topics of General Interest

Find out more about the history of Harris County with the information below.

Washburn Tunnel

“a city without old building is like a man without a memory.” --- Konrad Smigielaki

J. C. Clopper, during his 1828 visit to Texas, considered Buffalo Bayou“the most remarkable stream he had ever seen and though it had theappearance of an artificial canal.”

In 1835, Buffalo Bayou travelers described great forests of oak, cedar,ash and pine met on the banks of the bayou, and cypress and magnoliatrees, as many as 700 large trees per mile, protected the waterfront.  Thescent of magnolia and wild cherry blossoms drifted on the spring air.

Theodore-Frederic Gaillardet, a noted professional writer of his time,having received a law degree in Paris and involved support of the Frenchrecognition of Texas.  Gaillardet was one of the most respected of Frenchvisitors to Texas in 1839.  He described Buffalo Bayou as a “narrowstream, its course meanders, but it is deep and penetrates into the heartof a vast, important regions, for which it provides a valuable outlet.Buffalo Bayou is so narrow and the steamboats, which ply its waters, areso hemmed in between its two banks that the trees growing close to thewater tear into the hulls of the plucky crafts (Gaillardet:  1966, 53).

Frederich Schlect of Germany described in detail his 1848 journey upBuffalo Bayou on the steamboat Judge MacLean, noting that the “bayou waslined with sandbanks where a remarkable variety of swamp and waterfowlwere positioned on tree stumps protruding from the water.”  He continued,“A number of turtles and alligators would submerge themselves as the boatcame close.”  Schlect mentioned that, at first, the bayou’s shorelinelooked flat with reeds and grass, yet further along, the shoreline becameincreasingly steeper and was draped with an impressive array of bushes.

Prior to there being tunnels, or for that matter ferries, across theHouston Ship Channel, travelers would float the waters in skiffs, canoes,rafts, or whatever means they had.  The practice continued even afterthere was regular ferry service offered by the Pasadena Ferry, whichstarted operations on December 20, 1921 (Houston Post, May 28, 1950).  Forone thing it was less expensive to row yourself, than to pay the ferrytoll, because money was scarce.  The Pasadena Ferry was set apart fromearlier ones since it was motorized and could carry automobiles.  In 1918there were ferries at Lynchburg, Penn City, Cedar Bayou, Greens Bayou,Zavala, Market Street, and Goose Creek (Harris County Commissioners CourtMinutes 1837-1930).  The Pasadena Ferry plowed the waters of the shipchannel carrying passengers and autos until it was replaced by theWashburn Tunnel in 1950.  The last pilot for the Pasadena Ferry, whichcarried only pedestrians, was Elmer Clayton.  The Pasadena Ferry, whichcould carry 36 automobiles, had been retired two years earlier (HoustonPress, February 16, 1950).

The Washburn tunnel, located beneath the Houston Ship Channel, was thefirst dry land vehicular link across the ship channel between the 69thStreet Bridge and the Gulf of Mexico.  The Washburn Tunnel is locatedbetween the cities of Pasadena on the south with Galena Park on the north. As Shaver Street exits Pasadena, there is a traffic circle where it isjoined by Red Bluff Road on the east and West Richey Street entering fromthe southwest. Just after the circle, lies the south entrance to thetunnel.  Upon leaving the tunnel at the north side of the ship channel,there is a Roundabout, with Clinton Drive joining from the west.  Past theRoundabout the street is named Federal Road.  The Washburn Tunnelheadquarters and maintenance slips are located just south of the trafficRoundabout on the north side of the Houston Ship Channel on Federal Road.

Prior to the completion of the tunnel in 1950, the only passage acrossthis sixty mile stretch of the ship channel was by ferry and the ferriesseemed to be far and few between, if not somewhat unreliable (HoustonPress, March 30, 1945).  Trench type tunnels began to develop about 1840and continued to grow in popularity until the 1980’s. Talk of placing atunnel under the Houston Ship Channel began as early as 1940, but by 1945there were nine sites being discussed for two tunnels (Houston Chronicle,March 29, 1945).  It appears that the locations favored by the populationand the politicians were the Spellman’s Island site, near Morgan’s Point,and the Pasadena-Galena Park site.   Both won out in the long run.  ThePasadena-Galena Park site would eventually become the Washburn Tunnel andbe the first built under the Houston Ship Channel.  Built about the sametime, the Baytown Tunnel carried auto passengers from north of Morgan’sPoint to Baytown until the Hartman Bridge replaced the need for a tunnelin that area.  The Baytown Tunnel was removed and sunk in the Gulf ofMexico for a fish reef.

The Washburn Tunnel followed approximately the same route set forth by thePasadena Ferry.  Harry L. Washburn had served as County Auditor forforty-one years  was honored in the Tunnel naming by the Harris CountyCommissioners Court to the chagrin of many Pasadena and Galena Parkresidents, who wanted the tunnel named for their respective cities(Houston Chronicle, July 26, 1955; Harris County Commissioners CourtMinutes, April 4, 1949).

The years between 1945 and 1948, when the tunnel studies and constructioncommenced, saw bond elections, speeches, name suggestions, name calling,protests and various political maneuvers during the process.  The WashburnTunnel was touted as being the first tunnel to have automatic ventilationcontrol and a brilliantly illuminated interior.  Additionally, the 3009foot interior would be lined with glazed tile while the roadway would bepaved with paving bricks (Harris County Office of Human Resources & RiskManagement Publication, No Date).  Bricks were chosen over paving for theease of repair.   Control stations, were to be located at variousintervals, and were to house policemen, for the full control of anysituation that may arise (Houston Chamber of Commerce, Houston Magazine,November 1947).  Although, the police manned control stations have yet tobe documented, it was reported that three patrolmen would be on duty, atall times in the tunnel in addition to a wrecker, which would be used toremove disabled vehicles (Houston Press, February 16, 1950; PasadenaCitizen, May 25, 1950).

Upon its completion during May 1950, the Washburn tunnel became thenation’s only toll free tunnel, and utilized the highest technology intunnel engineering, ventilating, and lighting available at the time(Houston Press, February 16, 1950; Houston Post, May 27, 1950).  It wasestimated that 10,000 automobiles would use the tunnel daily to transportworkers, delivery drivers, salesmen, visitors, and sightseers from oneside of the channel to the other (Houston Post, May 27, 1950).  Thisnumber was expected to increase during the weekends.  Although theLynchburg Ferry survived the opening and later use of the tunnel, otherferries along the ship channel, such as the Pasadena-Galena Park and theMorgan’s Point ferries were made extinct.  The tunnel opened the window ofopportunity for the 100 plus industries along the channel in 1950, byoffering access to a multitude of potential employees and resources onboth sides of the channel (Houston Post, May 27, 1950).  The Houston ShipChannel has grown since 1950 to be lined with enormous oil refineries,chemical plants, factories, storage facilities, shipping terminals,manufacturing locations, importers, exporters, and related businesses bythe end of the twentieth century.

Renovations to the entrance, interior and roadway over the past twentyyears have not significantly altered the design or aesthetics of theoriginal tunnel.  Interior tiles were cleaned, re-grouted and polished; anew concrete roadbed was laid to replace the crumbling bricks.  New andmore modern electronics, mechanical systems, and surveillance cameras wereinstalled in addition to the ventilating system being renovated as well.During 1987, the tunnel was closed to traffic for four and one-half monthsfor major repairs, the longest closure in its fifty-seven year history(Houston Post, April 11, 1987).  The County also offered two gallons ofgas for stranded motorists in the tunnel until 2006, when the offerdropped to one gallon of gas.

Today, the Washburn Tunnel is open for business 24/7 except from Midnightto 4:00 p.m. on Thursdays (Harris County Precinct 2 Publication, No Date). This time is reserved for routine inspection, cleaning, and maintenance.Otherwise, the tunnel handles over 30,000 motor vehicles per day and hasoutlived it’s sister tunnel connecting to Baytown near Morgan’s Point,which was opened in 1953 and removed in 1995 to facilitate the deepeningof the Houston Ship Channel.   The Washburn Tunnel is on the NationalRegister of Historic Places.

Janet K. Wagner


6002 George Bush Drive, Kat, Texas 77492
Phone: (281)391-4884

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